All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1965

As A Man Thinks ..

D. WATTS, in addition to his writings and years of college teaching in economics, has served as economic counsel for leading business firms. He is now Director of Eco­nomic Education and Chairman of the Division of Social Studies at Northwood Institute.

Northwood Institute, a private, two-year college with campuses at Midland and Alma, Michigan, is dedicated to the philosophy and practice of the American free enterprise system. In all of its ac­tivities, Northwood seeks to provide in­tellectual stimulation, encourage person­ality development, and promote growth in moral understanding and character. Its aim is to aid students to become voca­tionally proficient, economically literate, and morally responsible, and to inspire an appreciation of our American heritage and the determination to preserve and enrich it.

“As a Man Thinks….” serves as Dr. Watts’ introduction to Philosophy 110: Survey of American Life and Business, designed to develop understanding of pri­vate enterprise and to inspire a resolve to develop the personality, character, and skills necessary for individual success in voluntary cooperation.

As we think, so do we act. We act in ways which we believe will give us what we think we need or what we imagine we will enjoy: particular foods, kinds of clothing, types of shelter, forms of romance, popularity with certain persons, leisure, security, or adventure. “A human being always acts and feels and performs in accordance with what he imagines to be true about himself and his environment.”¹

In this respect animals differ from humans. A beaver fells trees and builds a dam by instinct. In­herited instinct directs birds to build nests, badgers to burrow, and bees to make honey. We humans have no such built-in directives. We would quickly perish if we tried to rely for guidance on our few inherited urges or ill-defined in­stincts. For better or worse, hu­mans live only by virtue of what each individual learns during his own lifetime.

For this learning process, man has nature’s most highly developed nervous system. Still more impor­tant, this nervous system is sub­ject to the control by faculties of a forebrain that puts man, so scien­tists tell us, as far beyond the high­est ape as the ape is above the amoeba.

This forebrain records impres­sions. From these it forms and stores the ideas which ultimately govern human conduct, and it ap­pears to have virtually unlimited storage capacity for every sort of information brought to it by the senses.

But it is much more than a re­corder or storehouse. It possesses also the faculty of mind, which uses and directs the brain and nervous system. This mind, or conscious­ness, has the unique power to select from the recorded impressions and ideas those which it will permit to stimulate the nervous system and activate our muscles.

This power to select the control­ling ideas is what we mean by “free will,” or “freedom of choice,” which only humans, so far as we know, possess. Because of it, hu­mans have the power of self-con­trol, or self-government. It makes man responsible for his acts in that he can choose to act or to re­frain from acting as instinct-guid­ed animals cannot do.

Your Ideas Control You

As students of cybernetics put it, the human nervous system op­erates as a “servo-mechanism” to achieve goals set for it by the mind. These goals are mental images which our minds create by use of imagination.

Your nervous system cannot tell the difference between an imagined experience and a ‘real’ experience. In either case, it reacts automatically to information which you give to it from your forebrain. Your nervous system reacts appropriately to what ‘you’ think or imagine to be true.²

This means that humans can con­trol their own learning process as animals cannot. They can learn what they choose to learn. By se­lecting their own goals they can learn to direct their own “educa­tion.”

Increasingly, moreover, individ­uals must acquire this ability if they are to hold their relative posi­tions in a progressive society. For, as humans progress in cooperation, they make their social environ­ments more complex and more sub­ject to a rapid change. Schools can­not supervise the details of educa­tion and re-education necessary to keep pace with changes in the oc­cupational requirements and non-occupational opportunities in pro­gressive societies. Hence, members of such societies must develop in­itiative and skill in the techniques of teaching themselves. The aim of the schooling process, says Pro­fessor Jacques Maritain, should be, therefore, “to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human per­son—armed with knowledge, strength of judgment, and moral virtues—while at the same time conveying to him the spiritual heri­tage of the nation and the civilization in which he is involved, and preserving in this way the century-old achievements of generations.”3

Aims of Education

A sketchy list of what we should look for in education, therefore, includes:

1. Skills

a.   Manual skills, e.g., sucking, eating, walking, talking, read­ing, occupational techniques, sports, artistic proficiencies.

b.  Personality skills necessary for winning approval and co­operation of fellow humans, e.g., skills in expressing plea­sure, gratitude, disapproval, concern for the feelings and interests of others.

2. Moral Traits: habits of indus­try, thrift, initiative, fidelity, honor and honesty, courage, self-reliance, regard for interests and feelings of others.

3. Wisdom and Foresight: under­standing of cause-and-effect re­lationship in the animate and inanimate realms, including the realm of one’s own physiology and psychology as well as that of social relationships.

4. Learning Ability: adaptability, ability to gain and use new knowledge and to acquire new skills; resourcefulness.

Humans have progressed so far in developing these skills, it is said, that every individual must acquire in his own lifetime more knowl­edge and skill in living than all other creatures have acquired in the form of instinct during the two billion or more years of plant and animal evolution before the most primitive form of man ap­peared on the scene one or two million years ago.

Moreover, humans can never, apparently, stop learning. They make for themselves an environ­ment that is vastly more dynamic than that to which animals must learn to adapt, for this human en­vironment includes the actions of their fellows and the dynamic realm of intellectual and nervous change within each individual. This means that humans must acquire the ability to teach them­selves so that they can maintain their equilibrium in these two ever-changing worlds. They must learn how to learn, and they must acquire the ability to direct their own learning. They must plan to continue developing and exercis­ing this skill, moreover, long after their physical powers have begun to decline.

This learning process can in­crease until “cerebral accidents” seriously impair the functioning of the brain. That is, a man of sixty or seventy who knows three or four key foreign languages should learn a new language faster than a youth of 18 who knows only his native tongue. A 60-year­old economist should be able to master the intricacies of the ac­counting profession faster than a 20-year-old undergraduate, other things (e.g., original I. Q.) being equal.

In this connection, teachers should ponder this paradoxical statement by Jaques Maritain: “In order to reach self-determination, for which he is made, he [man] needs discipline and tradition, which will both weigh heavily on him and strengthen him so as to enable him to struggle against them—which will enrich that very tradition—and the enriched tradition will make possible new struggles….” 4

Passion for Objectivity

What shall we say, then, of the notion that the teacher should not take sides on “controversial” ques­tions—and what questions in the “social sciences” are not contro­versial today? Should the teacher merely collect and present all pos­sible opinions on these topics, with complete objectivity and with no attempts to help the student make a good choice between the conflict­ing views?

In what has been called the “modern, mad passion for objec­tivity” many teachers and schools recoil from a religious, poetical, or moral approach in pedagogy and scholarship. They propose to appeal only to the intellect lest they arouse emotions that, so they fear, may inhibit understanding and misdirect the mind.

But psychologists tell us that the mind cannot function without emotion, and that understanding, consequently, cannot exist without appraisal, or evaluation. Emotions are necessary to stimulate mental activity and the flow of ideas. Ideas, in turn, arouse and alter emotions. All action, including mental activity, is prompted by desire, ambition, purposes, pref­erences, likes, and dislikes which are evidences of emotion. Objec­tive observation and thought are not unemotional. Instead, they yield significant results only to the extent that emotions inspire the individual to make the effort of concentration necessary to get a clear view of the relevant facts. The emotions to be ruled out, or suppressed, are those which pre­vent this concentration and accu­rate interpretation. But the strength of the emotions which prompt the concentrated effort to observe and understand must cor­respond to the intensity of the concentration and other effort, mental or muscular.

And, because ideas play so large a role in determining human be­havior, humans must learn to dis­tinguish the true from the false, the useful from the useless or harmful, the good from the evil, the beautiful from the ugly. They must acquire the habit of choosing the one and spurning the other. They are needlessly handicapped in this learning and retarded in acquiring wisdom if teachers mere­ly present conflicting opinions and profess their own inability or re­luctance to choose between them.

Here is the way one writer deals with this doctrine that edu­cators should “present both sides” so evenly weighted that the stu­dent may easily decide that either or neither is valid:

That concept is endorsed by the overwhelming majority of persons who arrange the education and in­formation programs for colleges, ser­vice clubs, discussion groups, busi­ness organizations, and others. They believe in presenting the case for so­cialism along with the case for the free market. Challenge them and they will reply: “Objectivity and fairness demand that we present the argu­ments for government ownership even though we ourselves don’t be­lieve in it.”

Do objectivity and fairness demand that they present the case for coin clipping? They say no. Then why do they arrange for speakers and teach­ers who endorse the monetization of debt? After all, the device of mone­tizing debt is merely a modern ar­rangement of the old idea of clipping coins.

Objectivity and fairness aren’t the real reasons a person arranges for the presentation of both sides. The primary reason is this: The person hasn’t made up his own mind! He doesn’t arrange for a defense of coin clipping. He arranges to have the case for monetization of debt pre­sented because he himself hasn’t yet repudiated that method of financing government.

When a person voluntarily ar­ranges for the presentation of social­istic ideas along with free market ideas, you may be sure of this: He hasn’t completely repudiated social­ism; he hasn’t completely accepted the ideas of the market and of gov­ernment restricted to the equal pro­tection of the life, liberty, and hon­estly acquired property of everyone.

Here is a truism: If the evidence clearly indicates that an idea or policy is untrue or evil, no fair and objective person will voluntarily ar­range to have it presented as valid.5

The Myth of Neutrality

Because it is a physical impos­sibility to depict all facts and opinions in any book, class, or course, every educational effort must be selective. No historian could record everything that hap­pened in any period of time, however short. Insofar as the author of a history has only the educa­tional value of his work in mind, he selects for presentation those facts and supposed relationships which he believes will be espe­cially significant for certain read­ers and students. The teacher, simi­larly, insofar as he has only the educational usefulness of his work in mind, will select for recom­mended or “required” reading by his students, not all available books and articles on the period, but those few which he considers likely to be most effective in pro­ducing certain student reactions. The same holds true for authors and teachers in other fields.

In practice, of course, authors of textbooks seldom consider only educational values as they decide what facts and interpretations to present or ignore. Instead, they commonly select facts to support opinions held by the publishers’ editorial advisers, school boards, politicians, teachers, and others who help select textbooks. By the same token, they omit from their accounts any mention of facts and relationships which might support opposing views. Teachers, too, in selecting readings and in their class discussions of the readings must consider the opinions of school boards, superintendents, principals, parents, deans, presi­dents, and trustees.

We should recognize also that both authors and teachers are prone to economize time and effort by following tradition and to con­tinue presenting facts and opin­ions long after these have ceased to be significant for new genera­tions of students or accepted as valid by leading authorities in the fields.

Probably no teacher can pre­sent “both sides” of a controversy without bias unless he believes either that the controversy is un­important or that he cannot or dares not “take sides.” But if he believes that the controversy is unimportant, he can scarcely arouse the interest of his students in it; and if he shows that he cannot or dares not differentiate between the true or false, he fails to inspire in his students the atti­tudes and qualities necessary for human progress.

Northwood Trains for Voluntary Enterprise

One of the primary duties of a teacher is that of inculcating, by precept and example, the convic­tion that there is right and wrong, truth and error, beauty and ugli­ness, and that it is a matter of life and death for students to learn to choose between them. He should in­spire faith that there is truth, goodness, and beauty, that it is worth-while to seek them, and that it is possible to find them. To qual­ify as an effective teacher, there­fore, the individual himself must possess and display, to an excep­tional degree, this high regard for truth, virtue, and beauty.

Northwood Institute has been established to train students to function efficiently in private busi­ness, or “free enterprise.” We should assume that those who founded it, who send their chil­dren to it, and who contribute funds for its support believe that employment in private business is a good way to make a living; they believe that the typical operations of banking, finance, advertising, retailing, and the like do not re­quire lying, cheating, stealing, or maiming one’s fellow men. They expect Northwood courses to teach how such operations are carried on. More than this, the thoughtful liberal must surely recognize and teach that only in the voluntary association for the exchange of services—that is, only in volun­tary activities of free-enterprise industry, finance, commerce, and the professions—do humans de­velop those qualities which most distinguish them from animals.

We know, however, that a host of industrious and widely respect­ed authors and professional schol­ars teach that private business operations—the operations of buy­ing and selling in free markets—are dishonest, predatory, and de­moralizing to all who take part in them. They teach that, in free markets, the rich get rich at the expense of the poor, so that the rich get richer while the poor be­come more wretched and numer­ous. They teach that employers underpay their employees and that overproduction and unemployment result from the workers’ inabil­ity to buy the products of their own labor. Merchants regularly and necessarily cheat their cus­tomers in free markets, according to these anticapitalist scholars, and most consumers are so stupid that competition among profes­sional merchants regularly gives greater rewards to the sellers of shoddy goods, poisons, narcotics, and obscene literature than to pro­ducers of better-quality articles, nutritious foods, and wholesome publications. These supposed schol­ars contend that the poor and the common wage earners, consumers, and small producers can get econ­omic justice only if men like them­selves acquire and use the coercive power of the state to regulate pro­duction and to set the terms of exchange.

Effects of Anti-Business Propaganda

These illiberal ideas have gained increasing acceptance during the past century, and they have had consequences in the return to reactionary policies and political in­stitutions, together with growing disrespect for morality and “The Law.” The parallel between an­cient and modern civilizations in regard to individual freedom and the rise of empire is too striking to escape notice by thoughtful his­torians.

Degenerative influences are al­ways present in every society, and moral philosophers have called at­tention to them, generation after generation. Sometimes these Cas­sandra-like warnings may have helped to reverse the trend, so that constructive ideas and actions overcame the demoralizing forces. Humans progress only as they learn to recognize and avoid the mistakes of their forebears. The American scholar or teacher wor­thy of the title, I believe, must share some of the sentiments and experiences of prophets in other times and places.

It is not without significance that the “modern era” dates from the centuries during which schol­ars and pedants in the Western world won a measure of release from support and control by em­perors, princes, and other political functionaries. Nor is it mere coin­cidence that reactionary political trends have set in with the revival of political control over teachers, textbook writers, radio, televi­sion, and scientific research, a con­trol that takes many forms: pub­lic schools, state universities, gov­ernmental subsidies for research, and governmental controls over the broadcasting industries.

Means Mistaken for Ends

Scholars, teachers, parents, and politicians have increasingly mis­taken certain useful tools and tech­niques—books, scientific instru­ments, school buildings, and class meetings—for education. They have come to believe that, given enough of these tools and tech­niques, education of the young must necessarily follow. Then, in the belief that the end justified any means, they have proposed and instituted increasing coercion—legal but effective—to finance the printing of books, the purchase of scientific equipment, the build­ing of schools, and the hiring of teachers. At the same time they have resorted to increasing coer­cion to exclude the young from productive enterprise and to herd them into the costly buildings and classrooms by means of child labor laws, wage-hour laws, restrictions on tasks young persons may per­form, and truancy laws. As a re­sult, the young are getting more schooling but less and less educa­tion.

Moreover, if free enterprise cannot supply the services of edu­cation, why should we count on it to supply adequately the services we want from our fellow men in transportation, agriculture, indus­try, or commerce? Scholars who mistrust the good sense and initia­tive of their fellow men in educat­ing the young are likely to expect little but folly and bovine inertia from “the masses” in their other activities. They find it easy to be­lieve, therefore, that the same le­gal coercion that they advocate in schooling the young is necessary to assure right conduct on the part of their elders in the produc­tion and distribution of other goods.

Scholars and pedagogues who work in intellectual and financial partnership with politicians in education and research tend to join in movements to increase political intervention in every field of human endeavor. In fact, poli­ticians demand this political sup­port in return for the tax sub­sidies paid to writers and teachers in public schools and universities. As Henry Adams said, “All State education is a sort of dynamo machine for polarizing the popular mind: for turning and holding its lines of force in the direction supposed to be most effective for State purposes.”6

As a further result of these statist tendencies in thought and action, we find a spreading tenden­cy among scholars in state institu­tions to belittle or deny the facts of individual responsibility for hu­man action.

Faulty Rationale

For this denial of mankind’s powers—the powers of reason and self-direction—the statist schol­ars supply more than one ration­ale. Proponents of the Marxian rationale (materialistic determin­ism) reject the Freudian rationale (the libido and the subconscious) in Soviet culture even as they make use of it in their efforts to subvert and dominate thought and morality outside the borders of their own empire.

The pseudo-liberals of Ameri­can politics often reject the idea of individual responsibility, it ap­pears, merely for the purpose of arguing for the particular nos­trum which their favorite politi­cians happen to propose at the moment. When their political lead­ers are campaigning for Federal aid to education, they proclaim lack of schooling to be the condi­tion that holds the downtrodden masses in poverty and immorality. This lack they attribute, of course, to the greed or indifference of pri­vate enterprise, which has failed to supply the necessary school fa­cilities. When the politicians make slum clearance the political issue, the statist intellectuals find lack of proper housing to be the cause of crime, poverty, ill-health, and ignorance. But always in this view, it is some “social condition” that determines individual con­duct, not individual choice and ac­tion that make the social condi­tions.

No single idea, I believe, is more demoralizing, more discouraging to human effort, than this notion that the individual is not respon­sible for his acts, that he cannot be responsible for them, and that he should not, therefore, be held accountable for them. Springing from this dehumanizing satanism is the general mistrust of individ­ual freedom to be found in the arguments for political nostrums advocated as remedies for the supposed evils or short-comings of voluntary enterprise.

Humans Are Responsible

It may be that the faculty for self-control is itself “merely” an idea or complex of ideas, together with the corresponding develop­ment of the autonomic nervous sys­tem. But it can transform a life, and as it is associated with under­standing of oneself and other hu­mans, as well as of inanimate na­ture, it has increasing survival value for the individual and for all whom he cherishes.

The demoralizing notion of “so­cial responsibility” and expositions of the “failures of free enter­prise,” however, permeate the text­books which public schools and state universities adopt and use in economics, history, and other so­cial studies. Therefore, the institu­tion which seeks to inculcate un­derstanding of private business and enthusiastic dedication to the ideals and virtues necessary for efficiency in voluntary enterprise cannot use such textbooks except as collateral reading assigned as “horrible examples” of political in­terference with thought and schol­arship.

Yet, we must recognize that choice among nonstatist textbooks is limited and those which are available may be inadequate in various ways. What to do?

In my opinion, we should regard this lack of suitable textbooks as a challenge and an opportunity. In fact, we can recognize the inade­quacy of the statist books or of the alternatives only as we become aware of the need and opportunity for something better. That recog­nition is itself the beginning of wisdom which must make us more effective teachers. But more than this, it should inspire us to take the lead in providing textbooks and using classroom techniques neces­sary to achieve the success in edu­cation which every true teacher covets.

Foot Notes

1 Maxwell Malz, Psycho-Cybernetics (New York, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960).)

² Psycho-Cybernetics; p. 29.

3 Education at the Crossroads, p. 10, (emphasis added).

4 Education at the Crossroads, p. 2.

5 Clichés of Socialism, No. 22 (Irving­ton, N. Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1962).

6 The Education of Henry Adams, Modern Library edition, p. 78. 

  • Dr. Watts (1898-1993) , author and lecturer, was the Burrows T. Lundy Professor of the Philosophy of Business at Campbell College, North Carolina, and Director of Economic Education for Northwood Institute, with headquarters at Midland, Michigan.